The youngest demi chef de partie at the revered Michelin-starred London restaurant Dabbous, Rowen Darlow has calmly waltzed onto the restaurant scene with spritely yet thoughtful energy. Here, the 20-year-old fruit fan tells Produce Business UK about his journey since leaving college and winning the Cook South Africa! competition last year, which presented the opportunity to learn about South African cuisine and its fresh produce ingredients
On my way to meet chef Rowen Darlow, I wondered how the interview would go. On paper, he’s pretty much straight out of Westminster Kingsway College and we’re meeting on his day off at the high-profile restaurant in which he no doubt works 24/7. This could be awkward. As in, getting-blood-out-of-a-stone awkward. And, at the very best, he just won’t want to be there.
Happily, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Darlow welcomes me to celebrated chef Ollie Dabbous' modern European restaurant with an effortless warmth and enthusiasm. As we take a seat downstairs in Oskar’s Bar area – a sea of strong lines and metallic furniture – he seems very much at home.
Dubbed a ‘game changer’ in a self-prophesying opening review published in the Evening Standard in 2012, Dabbous has influenced the style of many a new restaurant and bar in London since, with its modern, brutalist decor and furniture, and its laid-back but professional service (all the staff were wearing their Christmas jumpers with glee, alarmingly early in December, when I was there).
Darlow has been in his role for four months, having previously spent nine months under big-name chef Nuno Mendes at the uber famous celeb-hangout Chiltern Firehouse after completing an International Culinary Diploma at Westminster Kingsway.
Learning from South Africa
So, how did it all happen? Well, it seems, that part of the recipe, along with Darlow’s clear drive and talent, was winning the Cook South Africa! competition and its subsequent placement at progressive experimental chef Margot Janse’s Tasting Room in Franschhoek, South Africa.
“Margot creates a different experience for everyone, using foraged berries, herbs and flowers from the garden, and South African produce that I had never heard of before,” explains Darlow, who spent a week working at the restaurant that serves one tasting menu of eight courses a night for up to 40 diners, who enjoy a three-and-a-half-hour gastronomic experience.
“Margot wants you to experience and taste a different kind of food – food with a story, so one dish would just focus on broccoli, but the vegetable would be sliced and some dehydrated, some blanched, some raw, then a stem would be woven with batter and chargrilled, to create a tree. They are beautiful plates and a lot of thought has gone into them.
“She used a lot of different herbs that were very different to anything I had used in the UK, like fynbos, which is dried and also used made to make fynbos vinegar; buchu, which we used in a tomato sorbet; spekboom, which has small bud leaves that pop in your mouth as you eat them; and kapokbos, a wild rosemary that’s indigenous to the Western Cape.
“Although the restaurant has a main veg supplier [Get Fresh in Paarl], Margot sources from local farmers as well, and very much relies on the Tasting Room’s kitchen garden for foraged sorrel, flowers and berries, like Eugenia berries, which are used a lot and have to be cooked or dried before eaten. She runs a very chilled and relaxed kitchen – and I think the food reflects that.”
Tipped for a career in fine dining by his tutors, Darlow admits that his previous experience of South African food was limited and he even wondered if it was a “stand out” cuisine. But after researching its food and experimenting with various South African fruit – a prerequisite of the Beautiful Country Beautiful Fruit-sponsored Cook South Africa! competition – he found a joy in matching sweet with sour, especially in savoury food.
“Domestic South African cookery traditionally involves a lot of barbecues, rustic dishes and open fires,” says Darlow, who had been on an afore-planned family holiday to South Africa during the year of the competition.
“I looked at both traditional dishes that already contained fruit, like bobotie, and researched general foods that I could incorporate fruit into. We had to work with South African varieties of peaches, apples, plums and pears, so I set to work, along with my tutor and mentor Miranda, making ketchups, chutneys, jellies and a leather [puréed and dehydrated fruit set into strips] to match with dishes like pickled fish and stews.
“This was before a lot of trendy restaurants were throwing sweet and savoury together, so it opened my eyes to dishes that would benefit from having fruit added. I now add fruit to a lot of my cooking and I am thoughtful of it when I am asked an opinion on menu decisions here [at Dabbous]. We have a dish coming up on the January menu that pairs cuttlefish and persimmon.”
Hungry for more
Darlow says his appreciation of the food available around him makes the hard work worthwhile and, although he is less likely to be involved with sourcing ingredients in larger kitchens, he has already learnt that fresh is best thanks to his first job at a restaurant called The Pantry, in his hometown of Newmarket.
“At The Pantry, there was a very strict philosophy of knowing where things come from and where and how they are grown or produced,” he divulges. “I’d go to the markets and be able to look at a product, to see if it was fresh and good before buying it, rather than sending stuff away when it has been ordered if it’s not reasonable quality. Here, we source from Mash and Wild Harvest, mainly, who are particularly great at getting ingredients that may not be so accessible to everyone.”
Now working alongside the very hands-on chef Dabbous, Darlow is learning more and more about the restaurant industry and food sourcing every day. Having always known he wanted to be a chef, Darlow says food experimentation and also the environment in which he works are key.
“I wanted to bag up all the produce from South Africa and take it home with me,” shares the chef. “It was so different and interesting, and they were using products that aren’t available here. South African cuisine is definitely something that will stay with me – going to Tasting Room was a life-changing experience. I learnt a lot about how a restaurant should be run – it doesn’t have to be testosterone-filled and it’s better if it isn’t. Life is a lot better if I cook what I enjoy in an environment where I enjoy cooking.”
Rowen’s winning Cook South Africa! menu
Darlow was the winner of the first Cook South Africa competition, which is held at Westminster Kingsway College and welcomes student chefs from all over the UK to compete for a prize, accolade and expenses-paid placement at the Tasting Room, Margot Janse’s award-winning restaurant in South Africa.
Going into its third year in 2016, the competition is part of South Africa’s annual Beautiful Country Beautiful Fruit promotional campaign in the UK and Germany, and asks young chefs to devise a three-course menu to be cooked under exam conditions in a cook-off scenario.
Here is Darlow’s winning combination for the 2014 competition:
To start: Pickled fish with a curried glaze served with soaked golden raisins and plum ketchup.
For main: Bobotie – slow-cooked and spiced fillet steak, peach and nectarine leather and nectarine chutney, with egg and rice balls.
To finish: Apple and sage cronut and a shot of Savanna cider jelly, with a candy floss lollipop and popcorn.
Run by Hortgro, the industry association that represents South African fruit growers, the Cook South Africa! competition is part of an ongoing campaign to promote fresh produce from South Africa, particularly the flavour and season of its fruit, and the key role farming is playing in the development on the country.
The competition is now open for 2016 entries until February 27, 2016. To enter, click here.
Give Dabbous a try
Relaxing in every way, this is probably one of the most comfortable and less-pretentious opportunities to experience Michelin-starred food in London. It’s well worth a visit.
Where: Dabbous, 39 Whitfield Street, London, W1T 2SF. 020 7323 1544. Nearest tube: Goodge Street.
How: Decked out like a modern bar, rather than a fine-dining restaurant, the venue is metal clad and roomy with large, floor-to-ceiling windows that let in natural light during the day and the Fitzrovia atmosphere by night.
When: Monday to Friday, 12 noon-2.30pm, then 5.30pm-11.30pm and Saturday 12 noon-2.30pm, then 6.30pm-11.30pm. Booking is advised.
What: It sounds a bit spit and sawdust, but Lard on Toast (£4 as bar food or featured on the lunch set menu for £28 for three courses) is actually thin Iberico ham fat as the ‘lard’ on a wafer of puff pastry ‘toast’. It’s as delicate in taste as it is in stature, especially with a fine layer of fresh and mushroomy black truffle shavings. It’s an extra supplement of £5 to have the truffle, but judging by the portion sizes, it feels like you’re getting that at cost price. The Grilled Quail with Pistachio, Mint & Orange Blossom is smoky yet palate cleansing, offering everything the title promises, plus a sprinkling of black squid ink powder that’s made on-site (£18 at the bar and on both the set menu for lunch and dinner at four courses for £56).
Drink: Oskar Kinberg’s cocktail bar serves the restaurant with botanical beauties such as a Barsol Pisco, which is a combination of quince gin, jasmine and Champagne. It was a bit early in the day when I visited, but it’s my port of call for my next article on fruit drinks! There is also a full wine list available.
Read other articles in PBUK's Sourcing Spotlight on South Africa:
Improved South African quality helps to put value back into UK produce aisles
Horizons expand for South Africa's ZZ2 as UK market loses supply appeal
Beyond survival: Capespan's MD Dique on how to turn disruptions into opportunities
Why South Africa has achieved a permanent and sustainable promotional impact
South Africa looks to diversify exports, but the UK and EU still remain key